Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer


Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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142 Questions


Last Answer on September 18, 2015

Best Rated

This is an amazing Q&A - you're really good at explaining stuff :) Did you hear about the Seaworld whale trainer dying in 2010? Do you think they should stop the whale shows when there's basically no way to prevent a killer whale from going crazy?

Asked by andrea s. over 6 years ago

Thanks for reading, Andrea! I did hear about this trainer’s death, and I think this situation is so heartbreaking and complicated. I will give you my opinion on this tragedy, but please understand that this is just my personal opinion--not the official stance of any organization or group of organizations. What happened to Dawn Brancheau was absolutely tragic. Sea World has made the decision to suspend the in-water portion of their orca shows, and I respect that decision very much. They have made the right move if this new policy saves even one other trainer from suffering a similar fate. I do want to stress, however, that I think it is rash for the public to pass judgment on the entire Sea World orca population—or Sea World in general—based on the actions of this one particular male orca. (And don’t be fooled by their identical appearances! Orcas demonstrate behavioral preferences and choices that vary as widely and drastically as human personalities.) Even before this tragedy occurred, I believe Sea World had some of the most impressive safety protocols of any organization in the world. Their enrichment and training program is top of the line, and many of the country’s best trainers, veterinarians and specialists work for them. (A friend of mine actually started at Sea World in 2006. Her dream was to become an orca trainer, but she was assigned to the dolphin department first. She was told it would be YEARS before she was given so much as an orca fish bucket, so you know Sea World takes its orca department seriously.) My personal opinion is that what happened to Dawn Brancheau was a tragic aligning of the stars. Everything from her choice in hairstyles to the time of year to this particular whale’s mood and temperament stacked up and collided to create one moment where one whale made one decision that will forever alter the way marine mammal facilities operate. It is impossible to know if this situation would ever repeat itself. Sea World has operated for many, many years with many, many whales that have never made the decision this whale did. But when in doubt, you may as well err on the side of caution. That’s what I believe Sea World has done, so I very much respect their judgment.

Can lions or tigers be domesticated? I've seen footage of people keeping them as pets - sweet as they seem, couldn't those animals snap at any minute?

Asked by C-Moz72 about 6 years ago

Hi C-Moz, you've hit the nail on the head. I highly discourage people from keeping any exotic animals as pets, but I PASSIONATELY discourage people from keeping big cats as pets. Illegal pet trade and animal welfare issues aside, domestication is a process that takes hundreds--if not thousands--of years of selective breeding. In order for an animal to be truly "domesticated," its natural instinct to fear humans must be completely bred out. (See my answer for the "dogs vs. wolves" question on this page for more info about how domestication works.) That's not to say a wild lion or tiger CAN'T be trained to safely--and sometimes affectionately--interact with a human. This happens frequently in zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country. The difference is that these animals are so powerful, instinctual and unpredictable that I believe they should only be trained by knowledgeable animal care professionals. Professionals are also WAY better equipped to deal with the enrichment and animal care issues that come up with these animals. Invariably, many of these so-called "pets" end up dumped in shelters or euthanized, and many don't get nearly the exercise or care they need. (See my answer to the "animals not commonly kept as pets" question on this page for more information about this.) Again, I'm not claiming the care of a lion or tiger by a private individual is IMPOSSIBLE; I'm sure many people keep big cats without incident. I just know that I personally wouldn't even feel comfortable keeping a big cat as a pet, and I AM an animal care professional. Better safe than sorry, you know?

Have you witnessed any grizzly animal attacks during your time in zoos (on humans or other animals)? Any one in particular stand out as the worst?

Asked by grizzly adamz over 6 years ago

Hi Griz! Believe it or not, I actually haven't seen any grisly attacks--just occasional bites or scrapes or bruises. There are a lot less attacks than you might think, and this is partially due to the safety protocols zoos and aquariums put into place before an animal and its keeper even meet. Animals are basically separated into "fight" animals or "flight" animals. The "fight animals" (bears, most big cats, etc.) are hard-wired to stand their ground when threatened, while the "flight animals" (most hoofstock, wolves, raptors, etc.) have evolved to flee. In most zoos, keepers use "protected contact" while dealing with fight animals--and even some flight animals. This means all training must be done through some kind of barrier--like a fence or bars. This prevents most dangerous incidents from occurring. Injuries can occur even when working with flight animals, of course, so keepers must always be alert, and we must learn to "read" our animals before training can occur. If an animal seems "off" for some reason, we must trust our gut and put our personal safety first--even if it means temporarily missing a training session. (In the event we do get injured, 95% of the time it's because of an error on OUR part--not paying attention, not reading our animals correctly, being distracted, etc.) Here are my personal claims to fame: I have been bitten by a raccoon (twice!), bitten by a bottlenose dolphin, footed by a great horned owl, cornered by a Bactrian camel and stabbed in the arm by a mountain goat. (Every time, the injury was my fault!)

Did you hear about the guy who jumped into the tiger pit at the Bronx Zoo? Not that I'd ever do that, but is the best thing to do in that situation just to play dead?

Asked by Ted about 6 years ago

What a crazy story, right? I am continuously amazed by the people who make these decisions. I feel like you would have to be delusional or very, very troubled to actually assess this situation and make the decision to "become one with the tigers." (I can't, of course, speak for this particular man or his particular motives. It's impossible to accurately judge someone without walking in their shoes, so I will try my best not to make sweeping generalizations. I am just extremely bothered by the fact that this man's self-destructive behavior put both him and the tiger at risk.) In all honesty, there isn't much hope for you if you jump into a tiger enclosure. These are powerful, instinctual, apex predators, and every fiber of their being is tuned into capitalizing on their prey's mistakes. They are also lightning fast, and they make kills very quickly and efficiently. However, just for the sake of argument, I believe the best approach when dealing with big cats is to NEVER curl into the fetal position or play dead. This sometimes works with startled bears, but it simply signals an easy meal to big cats. If you encounter a big cat in the wild, the best idea is just to stay calm and hope the animal doesn't see or become interested in you. If it does, speak loudly, raise your arms and try to scare it away. (Big cats are notoriously shy, so this may actually work.) If the animal refuses to leave (which is way more likely in a zoo setting), you should never turn your back or try to run, because this will incite the tiger's natural chase instinct. Tigers also tend to go for the head and throat, so protect your neck and strike at the animal's face, using anything you can grab as a weapon. In all likelihood, of course, you're a dead man if you don't get some assistance from the tiger's zookeepers. This is how the man at the Bronx Zoo survived. The tiger's keepers managed to keep their cool and distract the tiger before anything too tragic happened. The man looks like he will recover, and the tiger is fine, too. This is the best news of all, because nothing upsets me more than when animals get punished for simply acting on their natural instincts. Kudos to the amazing staff at the Bronx Zoo for averting this tragedy with levelheadedness, skill and precision!


Please let me know about monobenzone and benoquin cream.

Asked by What is monobenzone cream? over 6 years ago

Wow, this is a hard one! I will preface this by saying I have never used this medication (whether on an animal or on myself), so I am definitely not an expert on this. And I'm not familiar with this medication ever being used on an animal for any reason--except during its testing stage in labs. (I could definitely be wrong, though. Someone please correct me if you know better!) However, I am a little familiar with the medication, so I will give this my best shot. Benoquin (generic name Monobenzone) is a monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone that is used by humans to depigment their skin. It works by increasing the excretion of melanin--which is the pigment that gives our skin color. Without melanin, our skin becomes much lighter. Benoquin isn't recommended cosmetically for things like lightening freckles (because the results can be uneven), but it can be very effective with certain skin conditions like vitiligo--which is uneven colorless patches on otherwise normal skin. (Think Michael Jackson. Although there is some speculation as to whether or not he actually had vitiligo, he definitely used Benoquin--and other drugs--to lighten his skin. The result is the dramatic transformation of his skin tone through the years.) Hope this helps!

Are a lot of people in your line of work vegetarian/vegan, given that they work so closely with animals day in and day out?

Asked by m0ng00se over 6 years ago

Awesome question! There are definitely some, but I'm actually surprised there aren't more. Instead, it seems like many of the zookeepers I've worked with have grown this bizarre tolerance to all the gross raw meat and nastiness they have to handle on a daily basis. Many can even take a fecal sample and then roll right into eating a hamburger. (After hand-washing, of course!) The one exception to this is marine mammal trainers. They handle so much raw fish that most of the ones I know gag at even the thought of sushi!

What animal are kids usually most excited to see?

Asked by catherine over 6 years ago

Elephants! And big predators like polar bears or tigers or sharks. Also, who can resist a dolphin or a sea lion? I suppose a better answer would be that it really depends on the child. Some kids freak out over petting zoo animals, while some love aviaries where little birds land on their heads. Stereotypically speaking, though, my opinion would be that the biggest animals tend to be the biggest draws. Maybe kids just like to be humbled, or maybe it's hard for them to comprehend how big an animal actually is until they see it? Hard to tell, I guess, but the elephant line always seems to be the longest... ;)